Novelists used to be free to use quotations within their novels. Such quotations served to promote other artists and support the sharing of culture in much the same way we use hyperlinks on the Internet today. So I didn’t understand why so many novelists wrote their own lyrics to fictional songs when incorporating a few pertinent lines from a well known song could be more evocative.

It didn’t make any sense at all until I began to learn how copyright had begun to change in the latter part of the Twentieth Century. Suddenly it stopped being safe for a novelist to quote a line or two at an appropriate point as a fair use exception; and in particular, quoting song lyrics was likely to result in a legal challenge.

copyright symbol

Since copyright law has became so all pervasive, novelists can no longer afford to incorporate any actual music into their work for enhanced verisimilitude. If we want to quote a lyric it is legally safer to write our own. Since I’m a writer, not a lawyer, I’d rather spend my life writing novels than fighting DMCA take down notices or defending myself in court. And self publishing authors must be even more careful; unlike traditional publishers most of us lack a legal department.

Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie ins silver and black dances on stage

Black Eyed Peas: Fergie @ Morumbi, São Paulo, 2010

Ironically we live in a time when media is all around and more accessible than ever before. We carry the music we want to listen to around with us on digital devices, we watch movies on television or computers, and vehicle manufacturers have been known to build DVD players into minivans so our children can be entertained when we travel. We’re never without our phones on which we can talk, text, take photographs, record video, play videogames, listen to music, read novels or share any of the above with our friends and family.

Available technology should make it possible to provide the option of a music track on an eBook. After all, vast libraries of music can be fitted on an MP3 player the size of a keyfob, so digital eBook reader ought to be able to play music as it happens within a novel.

It isn’t technology that’s preventing this innovation, but copyright law.  Publishers could never afford the resultant royalties, the cost of which would make the price of eBooks soar. Nor could self publishers. We are surrounded by media that permeates every aspect of our culture, yet ever-higher and never-ending royalties certainly put a crimp in potential innovations.

I still remember my disappointment when I bought the soundtrack album for one of my favorite films, “The Year of Living Dangerously.” The sound track was incomplete, since a piece of music by Vangelis doesn’t appear on the album. It was used in the scene where the intrepid reporter makes a run for home in spite of a curfew and armed guards at checkpoints. At the time I had no idea why it was left off the official sound track album, but now I expect the young film maker’s budget couldn’t afford the sync rights.

The television series WKRP in Cincinatti was late to DVD because of the high cost to re-license the music originally aired in the show.  As you can imagine, the music is rather important when the show is about a struggling radio station, yet the DVDs have been released with alternate generic music with affordable licenses.

When you combine recorded music with film there are a whole different set of rights. I can see no rational need for this. Particularly when these license fees seem arbitrary, excessive and entirely removed from the creators who actually made the music. The recordings Nina Paley chose to score her classic animated movie, Sita Sings The Blues were created and performed by artists long dead.  The music was in fact within the public domain – except for the sync rights. Which makes me wonder why these rights require an even longer copyright term, or what these license fees are supposed to be for.

Music and movies are an enormously powerful part of each generation’s culture. It’s why George Lucas spent so much of the budget for his first movie American Grafitti on the sync rights to the music that he wanted to use. The music from the era was a crucial element of the story.

The largest market for music and movies are young adults, so it was equally important that contemporary media was incorporated into the college life of my Christie students. Interestingly, there seems to be less choice in top acts offered by the mainstream media, so it wasn’t very difficult to discover that the Black Eyed Peas are today’s monster act.

And while Tamara is the one who has actually gone out and bought her own B.E.P. CDs, Barbie borrows them because she is a big fan, attracted to Fergie’s strong confident stage persona because this is the the way Barbie imagines herself to be. Although YouTube! gave me enough Black Eyed Peas information to be able to reference them in my novel, I came to like their music enough to buy myself The E.N.D.

writing to music

When I’m writing fiction, I almost always have my own music playing, and it helps if it’s the right kind of music. If the scene I’m working on is sad, it comes out sadder if the music I’m listening to is melancholy instead of bouncy. Of course, nothing is graven in stone; sometimes it helps to hit the right note of discordancy in a scene by listening to the wrong kind of music.

I used to mostly listen to sound track music when writing, because this is music written to fill the subconscious with meaning. Unfortunately most of the soundtrack albums I have accumulated are on vinyl, and at the moment I’ve no way to play them. At one point, I went looking for the soundtrack album of O Lucky Man and was shocked to find the O Lucky Man music CD cost twice what the movie DVD did. Life mimicking art, as it were.

Rather than spend the rest of my life buying soundtracks (and other music) all over again, I’m finding new music at jazz festivals. If I like it, I’ll purchase CDs direct from the artist, or I’ll download music from Jamendo.

the “Inconstant Moon” soundtrack

When I wrote the first draft of Inconstant Moon, some of the action was actually choreographed to the music running through it. But for subsequent drafts I went through and carefully excised anything that might inspire copyright challenges.

Although there is talk about music and performers in the novel, I don’t quote lyrics. But I’ve decided to share some of the novel’s playlist as it lives on in my mind in case you might be interested. 🙂

The first chapter was devoid of any kind of music, unless you count the free form music of the wind in the trees, and the hollow percussion of footsteps travelling along the path through the leaves. Fortunately no corporation has yet managed to find a way to copyright nature.

The action on the second chapter takes place in the on campus pub. An unnamed Beatles song (probably “Help!”) is replaced by an unnamed torch song playing on the juke box. As Liz watches Eric and Elsie slow dance, she can hear snatches of the song, which is actually the Tim Louis song “Untrue.” For me, this became Elsie’s song, and it reappears (and is named) as one of the songs Amelia plays for Eric in Chapter 54 at the depression party.

“Loneliness” from the Annie Lennox solo CD Bare struck me as the ultimate “depression party” song, with lyrics that run through the gamut of unhappiness. Weaving some of these lyrics into the scene would have been effective, so I made some attempts to contact Ms. Lennox’ website to investigate the possibility of permission. Sadly the website walls were too high and hard to climb, so it seemed prudent to use nothing beyond mention of the title.

Originally Julie Crochetière‘s song “Precious Love” was played at the depression party, but it ended up being cut. The love theme for Liz and Ethan has always been Michael Kaeshammer’s Give You My Heart from his “Lovelight” CD. If you’ve got flash you can give a fraction of the song a listen via Michael’s MySpace page: Give You My Heart

In Chapter 55 we find Boris drowning his sorrows at the bar, in a scene that opens in my mind with Allison Crowe’s cover of the Lennox song “Why” and then succeeded by the Tim Louis song “Seduce Me” from his Til It Be Tomorrow album Seduce Me, available in its entirety on Tim’s MySpace page.

The night when Eric, Jose and Amelia come into the pub to see Elsie put on a dirty dancing display to remind Eric of what he has thrown away, the song on the jukebox is Allison Crowe’s cover of the Aretha Franklin classic “I never loved a man

I stopped listening to the radio a long time ago, since the content was getting blander. I first saw Tim Louis, Michael Kaeshammer and Julie Crochetière at the Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival in 2009. I only really became aware of the Jamendo site and Allison Crowe partway through the writing of Inconstant Moon. Allison is quite versatile, and her musical range is quite wide, so her music has replaced a lot of the older music I own in formats I can no longer play. I am constantly amazed with the fine quality of music found on Jamendo, and the best part of it is that copyright restrictions do not prohibit anyone from making as many personal copies as needed on whatever digital devices one desires.

Image Credits:
Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie onstage in Morumbi, em São Paulo by Focka Comunicações released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

The CD compilation photo is a fair dealing representation for the purpose of illustrating this article.